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BCI Debates: The Men’s Lacrosse Question

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Laura: Since last week you guys were interested in getting into whether or not BC should add men’s lacrosse, let’s chat about that today! I have nothing much to say about this, so have at it.

Grant: BC should bring back men’s lacrosse and for Title IX purposes should add a second women’s lacrosse team.

Laura: True.

Joe: Alright, let’s set the table for this up front. As the resident Old, I’ll try to add some context.

1. Back in my Editor Days I generally avoided this topic on BCI because it became pretty tired and redundant. It became even more of a non-issue once BC invested in a new, state-of-the-art facility for baseball; it was clear that the long-suggested path of making room for men’s lacrosse by dropping baseball was obviously not going to happen, whether you agreed or disagreed. So it was (and maybe remains?) a pointless argument.

2. That being said, the rise of the women’s lacrosse team into true national powerhouse status has, fairly enough, brought this issue back to the forefront - especially given the huge crowds that have come out at Alumni Stadium to support the team. We’ve also seen other local teams (like BU) find some success in the men’s game, and it’s continued to grow in terms of in-person attendance and TV audience.

3. The simple Math Problem at the heart of the men’s lacrosse issue is that BC already has 31 varsity teams - a very large athletic program particularly for a school our size - and more crucially, is one of a very, very small number of schools that has football, baseball, men’s basketball, and men’s hockey, all of which are intended to be fully-funded and compete at the highest level of their sport. I used to know off-hand how many schools fit in to that category; I don’t anymore, but it’s certainly fewer than 10. Maybe like 6 or 7. So adding on another large and expensive men’s sport would be pretty difficult. Notre Dame is the only private school I can think of that has all five. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)

If BC is bringing back a men’s lacrosse team they are obviously going to want to do it because they think we can be competitive at the ACC/national level, which would mean investing in coaching and recruiting in a way that’s much more expensive than some of the smaller sports BC currently carries and are thrown out there as potential sports to drop to make way for lacrosse. And in addition to carrying an additional large and expensive sport, there’s of course the matter of the Title IX compliance issue.

I think that’s basically the Background needed, and that leads us to, what are BC’s options? I’ll try to lay them out, all of which have their strengths and weaknesses, and then folks can share where they fall on the issue, or perhaps suggest something totally off the board.

Joe: BC’s options, none of which are perfect, are basically:

1. Keep the status quo; the con is obviously that we’re missing out on a sport where theoretically, we could be successful and attract an audience.

2. Add men’s lacrosse and make it work by adding the requisite number of women’s scholarships. The issue here is there are very few women’s sports BC could feasibly add that we don’t already have; plus, facility crowding issues, etc.

3. Add men’s lacrosse by dropping an equivalent number of scholarships on the men’s side; this would mean either kneecapping an existing program by limiting its scholarships; or dropping programs that currently exist. Which sounds easy and fun enough to speculate about, until you remember that these programs are populated by actual human beings (coaches, athletes, alumni, etc), whose connection to the school and their college experience is inextricably tied to their participation in their athletic team.

I guess if there’s an option 4 out there, it’s not one familiar to me. But maybe someone can come up with it.

With that all being said, fire away with your thoughts.

(As an addendum to option 2, my understanding is that the women’s sports we don’t currently sponsor are: bowling, rifle, water polo, beach volleyball, and gymnastics. There may be sports where we don’t offer the full amount of allowed scholarships though I’m not sure.)

Arthur: Rifle doesn’t seem like a sport BC will recruit well in tbh.

Curtis: I believe Boston College sponsored a men’s water polo team up until the early 2000s, and currently has a decent club team making use of the facilities at the new Plex. I think adding a women’s water polo team could be a viable path forward to also adding men’s lacrosse. There wouldn’t be any required new construction to my knowledge, though I could very much be wrong.

Otherwise, from the sports you listed, I think they would require an additional level of commitment to facilities.

Joe: There are a few Ivies, GW, and Notre Dame that form an east-ish conference that we could theoretically compete in for water polo, so that’s probably the likeliest add. That said, it is really probably not something we could realistically be competitive in.

Arthur: I think the big issue is that athletic programs should probably be looking at ways to cut costs rather than add them in. Higher education and athletics specifically are looking at a cliff right now and adding more expenditures doesn’t seem smart for the department’s fiscal future.

Joe: Yeah, and realistically, even if we kicked ass at men’s lacrosse and started charging money for tickets, it would probably be like a net wash financially at best - even men’s hockey “loses” money on paper (though it’s hard to directly measure hockey’s impact on merch sales and such) - they all pretty much lose money except for football and MBB. Which is fine - the point is to invest in the university community, add some marketing value, etc. and not to bring in revenue per se- but it’s worth keeping in mind the finances due to the cliff you mentioned.

Curtis: BC may want to add men’s lacrosse in the face of a cliff for that reason. The team would be much more resistant to cost-cutting due to its larger overall popularity in the region, immediate relevance due to playing in the ACC, and potential to break-even on budget. If big cuts across sports programs are coming in the next several years, keeping men’s lacrosse allows them to save face a bit at lesser cost.

That of course is the solution in a version of this where we are cutting a different men’s team, rather than adding a women’s team.

Joe: I’m not really sure that’s right Curtis - it’s an expensive sport and carrying it would be more expensive than almost any sport other than the big 4. Now, where lacrosse probably has some juice that others don’t is in ability perhaps to raise money or drive some fundraising with success.

Grant: I don’t think we mentioned it yet — how many scholarships are we talking here?

Joe: The max I believe is 12.6 scholarships in men’s lax and presumably if BC goes in they’d want to offer the full array.

Just to add some additional context, according to the Equity in Athletics data from the government, BC’s per-participant expenses in women’s lax are $12,460 for a total of about $500K. The only sport more expensive on the women’s side was basketball ($86k per participant, around $1 million in total expenses). I was actually shocked to read that women’s lax had even higher operating expenses than women’s hockey. So you have to figure men’s expenses would be at least equivalent if not more expensive on a per-participant basis.

Arthur: The other thing is that BC would have to likely play an ACC schedule, that just adds costs.

Joe: Some of the sports people talk about maybe dropping, just for context, the total expenses on the men’s side are:
Fencing: $52k
Golf: $79k
Skiing: $52k
Swimming and Diving: $93k
Tennis: $98k

*Caveat - all these figures are from the COVID year, so, take that fwiw.

Arthur: Also the argument for dropping sports shouldn’t be in order to add sports. If BC decides to drop sports it needs to be for the long term fiscal future. Those numbers are an excellent reason why.

Grant: This is a pretty good argument. You need to have a pretty compelling case for upending the lives of folks who play a sport you want to drop just to pick a different sport. Just from a morality perspective.

Arthur: If all of those sports got dropped that’d be $374,000 in savings (Grant, check my math on that I didn’t go to math school). That’s maybe half of the lax budget.

Joe: This is starting to sound like me making the case for not doing it, which was not really my intention, as I really have enjoyed learning the sport of lacrosse - but again, it’s a math problem. I know it’s easy to say, oh, BC has plenty of money. But figure, bare minimum: ~ -$500K in men’s lax operating expenses
-$440Kish in men’s lax scholarship expenses
-The equivalent $440K in new women’s scholarships to equalize it plus whatever minor operating expenses exist
That’s about $1.3 million - not once, but per year... and yeah, sure BC brings in a ton of revenue via the ACC, but so do all the schools we are trying to compete with in football, basketball, plus all the other sports, and we’re already behind almost all of them in revenue. It’s not a small matter.

Arthur: Plus this is just to get the foot in the door. If BC is going to be competitive in the sport money needs to be spent on good coaches, updating facilities, all of that. No point doing this if BC is content being mediocre.

Joe: The reality of cutting sports is the other thing I always try to keep in mind. Like, genuinely, the people who played men’s lax and did wrestling at BC have very good reason to be upset that their sports got cut. Think about what was meaningful to you at BC and how upset you’d be if it went away, how that would impact your relationship with the school. I don’t blame men’s lax or wrestling alumni who don’t give to the school, support the other sports teams, etc.
It’s not a small matter to do that to more people, even if it looks or feels small just looking at numbers on a spreadsheet.
Now that being said, it’s business, everyone knows it’s business. So I get it, and if we genuinely think we could be a powerhouse in men’s lax, with all the potential for some revenue and exposure that brings, then you entertain it anyway. But don’t take it lightly.
Zooming out from individuals, obviously you look at the broader BC community, and on the face of it, would people rather have a men’s lacrosse team or one of those lower-expense sports I mentioned — the general consensus is probably a men’s lacrosse team. But then from there ask, well, would you rather have a men’s lacrosse team or the extra net ~million or so in expenses available to put in to existing sports? That’s probably a more complicated question that would get a wider array of answers.

Arthur: From a departmental standpoint the latter is the obviously better option.

Joe: Now I have no doubt there are probably alumni out there who would be willing to step up and fund some aspect of getting men’s lacrosse going again, so you’re probably adding some revenue in addition to the expense - but it’s hard to know how much.
That would obviously be an important factor in any decisions on this front. Like we’ve seen with schools that have added men’s hockey, like Penn State, it generally requires one or multiple specific benefactors; these sports are great for the community in the sense of being a source of pride and entertainment, but unlike football or basketball don’t bring in significant revenue via TV.

Arthur: I think a benefactor is the only way to justify this honestly. How can you justify diverting that kind of money when other programs are scraping by?

Joe: That all said, it would be pretty cool. I am definitely a convert to the sport, it’s been really entertaining to follow the BC women and I’ve caught some of the men’s games on ESPN too, and they’re fun. So if there’s a benefactor out there, that would be great.

Curtis: The justification would be if the BC community wants men’s lacrosse more than X sport, and if they have the means to do so, then it could be done. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the most moral or kindest justification, but it’s not crazy to think the BC admin could find a reason to start the program without a benefactor.

Joe: Yeah, I hear that. Not everyone always gets what they want, sometimes tough decisions have to be made that are in the broader interest even if they make specific individuals unhappy. That said, then you get in to the money issue.

Arthur: It doesn’t work like that though. Would the greater community like watching it more than say, fencing? Sure, and if it worked like that then fine. But it’s like it’s as simple as pushing the money from one to the other. There’d have to be like five fencings that meet the axe, and that says nothing of the fact that some people do have an educational benefit through those sports. Collegiate athletics, at least how I think BC views collegiate athletics, are far more than just spectator sports. If BC had any interest in just making everything just spectator focused they could slash half the department. But they don’t.

Curtis: Yes, funding-wise the athletic department would have to appeal for a larger budget, but that’s not an impossible thing to do. If new AD Blake James makes a compelling case as to why men’s lax is worth it, then it could happen down the line.

Joe: The reason why I mention carrying all of the “big 4” is again to put the expenses of each in perspective: Football, $2.7 million; MBB: $1.3 million; baseball, $719k, men’s hockey, $551K. These are operating expenses, before you get in to coaches salaries, which are obviously higher in these sports than in any others.
This is why the ‘drop baseball, add men’s lacrosse’ argument back in the day at least had some logic to it - the money was probably like-for-like in addition to the scholarships. But that’s now a settled issue.
When you compare us to peer-ish schools that have found success in men’s lax, that’s really the difference, is in carrying the rest of the big 4. Yeah, BU has a good men’s lacrosse program; they also don’t have football. The Ivies do well, but they’re in FCS; much cheaper. The Dukes and Northwesterns of the world don’t have hockey.

Curtis: Adding men’s lax more than just about spectators, too. It’s a popular sport in the region that could boost general interest in BC.

Joe: Oh absolutely I agree. These decisions can’t and shouldn’t be made just based on money. From a pure money standpoint obviously you would just get rid of all the sports other than the bare minimum you needed to carry football and MBB.

Joe: So does anyone have any hot takes to round us out here — if you’re Blake James are you putting this high on your to do list? What’s your approach?

Grant: I have two thoughts. Thought number one is that this isn’t important enough to upend another sport. There are pretty real and material consequences that come from pulling the rug out from underneath any other sport’s supporters in terms of both optics and donations. My other thought is — we don’t need a men’s version of a sport just because our women’s version is awesome. Let’s just let the women’s version be awesome. I don’t think the right line of thinking is “Hey, women’s lacrosse is great. You know what would be even more great? That, but with MEN.”

Joe: I get what you’re saying with point 2 but I’m not sure that’s where the sentiment is coming from. I think it’s more so, we’re so starved for success as a fan base, we’ve seen proof of concept of what it can look like to be successful (and people have enjoyed it!), and see an opportunity for more of that. On point 1 though, yeah, dropping sports is a big deal. Not something to take lightly at all.

Curtis: Yeah I disagree with what Grant is saying in his second point. This is more about an opportunity to bring success to Boston College in a naturally-fitting sport, and I think simplifying it to being about men vs women is a bit disingenuous. Though I’m absolutely sure there are people out there who think that way

Joe: Fight fight fight! What’s your bottom line here, Curtis?

Curtis: My bottom line is that men’s lacrosse should be at the top of the list for eventual major spending projects in BC Athletics, over renovations to Alumni or other things, because of how much it could be successful and expand BC’s influence in the region. But until the money is there, it’s not really feasible. A big donor will have to step-up, or BC’s administration will need a big change in course into supporting athletics at a higher funding level.

Arthur: My answer is no. This is not a priority. It hasn’t been a priority, and the fact that the women have been so successful hasn’t made it a priority. The problems with doing it still exist, and in fact there is less of a path to get there than before, and this is not an idea that leads to success both on and off the field.

Joe: For me I think unfortunately there’s no feasible path to get from point A to point B right now. It can’t really be a front-burner move. I hate to say that because I really have come to enjoy the sport and do think there could be some success on the men’s side.
One thing that would change this obviously is benefactors - but you’re talking 8 figures for sure.
My “twist” here though is: lots of things are changing, and one thing is that the NCAA may either be forced to or voluntarily end per-sport scholarship limits. This probably would be a bad thing for BC in general in the marquee sports? But could offer an opening in lacrosse’s case. Title IX would still be a thing; if you could make up the men's lax scholarships by gassing up the scholarship figures on already existing women's sports rather than adding new ones… that suddenly is a lot more feasible. You’re not adding a team’s worth of operating expenses, plus you’re probably going to need to up the amount of scholarships anyway to compete at a high level in our best women's sports in an unlimited scholarship world.
So I’d say…. Holding pattern. Circumstances for now don’t really allow for men's lax to move past the idea stage. But circumstances could change.

What’s your take on the great Boston College men’s lacrosse debate? Let us know in the comments!